Beijing boasts of 'leapfrog development' in Tibet

Despite $45.4 billion in investments since 2001 and more than a decade of double-digit economic growth, some observers question whether Tibetans have benefited as much as Han Chinese.

The Dalai Lama says Tibet is “hell on earth,” but China’s central government is boasting that $45.4 billion in aid to the region over the past nine years has helped “boost Tibet’s leapfrog development” and achieve “lasting stability.”

The announcement came during a high-level planning conference on Tibet from Jan. 18 to 20, attended by Chinese President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

Whether Tibet is currently stable now, or will remain so, is of course a hotly contested topic. In 2008, rioting erupted in Lhasa, Tibet's capital, after the arrest of Tibetan monks seeking to commemorate a failed uprising against Chinese rule. Last April, China executed two Tibetan men for participating in that riot.

But China is claiming phenomenal economic growth in the region. “Tibet has been able to maintain double-digit growth in terms of GDP for 17 straight years, outpacing the national average,” reports official Chinese news agency Xinhua. Tibet’s GDP was expected to top $5.85 billion in 2009, up 12.1 percent year-on-year and up 170 percent from 2000, according to Xinhua.

This emphasis on economic development, reports The New York Times, “indicates that Chinese leaders still see the solution to the problem of Tibet as one of supplying creature comforts.” But the issues of cultural suppression and political restriction must be addressed to change Tibetan attitudes toward the state, says Robbie Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University in New York.

"As far as one can tell," he wrote by e-mail Monday, "Tibetans certainly appreciate improved economic conditions and greater opportunities for consumption and commodities, but this doesn't explain why Tibet has to have mass tourism, widespread mining, unrestricted migration of non-Tibetans, or religious and cultural restrictions."

Ethnic Han Chinese civilians today outnumber Tibetans in Tibet's capital, Lhasa. Longtime Han migration to the region sped up in 2006 with completion of a $4.2 billion railway linking Lhasa to Beijing, leading some observers to question whether Tibetans or Han Chinese have benefited more from the region’s economic growth.

“They're developing the territories they have conquered. No one would dispute that,” says Ganden Thurman, executive director of Tibet House, a New York-based organization dedicated to preserving the country's cultural heritage. “The point is that ... it’s not being done to help the Tibetans. It’s being done to exploit the natural resources of the area.”

Mr. Thurman cited the bloody riots that broke out in Lhasa in March 2008, sparked by the police suppression of monks protesting to mark the 49th anniversary of the failed Tibetan uprising in 1959.

“The people have nothing to lose,” he said by telephone Monday. “People are fleeing the country. That’s voting with your feet.”

By 2020, President Hu reportedly said, the per capita income of Tibetan farmers and herders should be close to the national average. Investments in Tibet have already expanded roads, electricity, and safe drinking water. Beijing also credits itself for increasing the supply of Tibetan-made products, such as the first batch of Lhasa Beer that was exported to the US in May 2009.

But Hu added that greater emphasis must be put on increasing environmental protection and improving the livelihood of Tibetan farmers and herdsmen. And further growth must still overcome the “separatist forces led by the Dalai clique,” he said. "Hu asked to substantially prevent and strike 'penetration and sabotage' by 'Tibet independence' separatists, in order to safeguard social stability, socialist legal system, the fundamental interests of the public, national unity, and ethnic solidarity," Xinhua reported.

In October, President Obama became the first president not to welcome the Dalai Lama to the White House since the Nobel Peace Prize winner began visiting Washington in 1991. The decision drew ire from some quarters, as Obama-the-presidential-candidate had called on former President Bush to boycott the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony in protest of the government's response to the March 2008 riots.

However, Obama has said he will meet with the Dalai Lama early this year. This, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent call for worldwide Internet freedom, is expected to increase bilateral tensions with China.

Websites that post content about the 2008 riots or the Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile are blocked in China, and it is against the law to have a picture of the Dalai Lama in China. Tibetan monks are especially wary of the government’s presence, as many monks are believed to be undercover police, the Christian Science Monitor reported in September.

Even monks and workers at Lhasa’s Potala Palace, a UN World Heritage Site and home to the Dalai Lama until 1959, are believed to be undercover Chinese officials.

“If I go to Potala Palace, the monks there listen to what I tell the tourists,” one government-approved tour guide told the Monitor then.

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